Monday, October 06, 2008

A primer on the financial crisis

I saw last night that 60 Minutes tried to explain the great finance crisis that's hitting the world (but, and let's put the blame where it belongs, it started in the U.S.). They didn't do a great job of it. They used sound bites to explain what caused the problem and why it was bad without explaining what really happened and how. Not that this is surprising for television reporting.

I did some digging and found the following information, culled from several sources. Special thanks to a user named Tavella on for posting an explanation, from which this post is culled.

* * *

Banks like giving out mortgages. This shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. They are a safe vehicle for providing credit. Traditionally the failure rate is around 5%, peaking at around 15%. When mortgages do fail, they are attached to collateral: actual property, for which there is always very good demand. The value of property generally trends upwards. There are occasional bubbles and bursts that affect home owners and investors in the short term, but that shouldn’t be enough to sink a bank.

So, what happened?

With the rise of China as a source of the world's cheap crap, and the increase in oil revenues, and several other things, the 1990s saw the rise of a lot of investment money. The investors wanted a safe investment vehicle. Mortgages were a safe investment vehicle! So, the banks started selling mortgages. After all, people usually paid their mortgages (and if they hit hard times, they'd usually pay their mortgage before any other debt), and if they didn't the bad debt was tied to collateral.

The way banks sold mortgages was through something called a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO). This is one of those things you've heard about called a "derivative".

CDOs work based on the default rate of mortgages. The banks took a whole bunch of mortgages and lumped them all together. The banks knew how much money they would make from those mortgages, both as monthly payments and as interest. However, between and 5% and 15% would fail, based on historical data. 5% were likely to fail, and there was some risk that up to 15% would fail. So, the banks took this lump of mortgages and split it into what they called tranches. They took 85% of the mortgages and put them into the A tranche. Of the remaining 10% they put that in the B tranche. The leftovers were put in the C Tranche.

These tranches were then sold to investors (usually large institutions). The A tranches got the highest AAA ratings. The B tranches got BBB rating. No one touched the C tranches, so the banks kept that for themselves and paid themselves nice interest rates. The risk was spread across the tranches. The difference, as an investment, between the tranches was based on how they were paid out. When a mortgage is paid out, investors get a return based on the tranche they bought. The C tranches got the highest percentage return, then the B, then the A. However, if some of the mortgages defaulted, what money was recovered went to the A tranche first, then the B tranche, then the C. The A tranche, therefore, was considered safer, though it generated a lower rate of interest.

These CDOs were so popular that investors started asking for more and more of them. Unfortunately for the banks, only so many people could afford to buy homes. Too bad, as these things were generating a lot of income for the banks.

They were also generating a lot of income for the investors, because housing prices kept increasing during this period (with the occasional bubble, but mostly moving upward) which increased the dollar value of mortgages, and the payout to investors. This put even greater pressure on the banks to generate more of these securities.

This is where things start to go wrong.

You can’t just “create” more mortgages. You only get more mortgages if you find ways to lend more people money to buy property. The banks started to get "creative" in the types of mortgages they produced, in an effort to get more people to take out mortgages.

The most infamous of these creative mortgages is the sub-prime mortgage. You got a mortgage at a really low interest rate for a set amount of time. At the end of that time, the rate would go up, sometimes drastically. You could then take out a loan on the equity that you'd built up or sell the house for a profit before the mortgage came up for renewal. Or, you sucked it up and paid the higher interest rate.

Now, I want to mention something about Canadian mortgages. In Canada, most mortgages are variable rate. I was quite surprised to see that American banks would offer fixed rate mortgages that never changed for the lifetime of the mortgage. In Canada, you typically take out a variable rate mortgage. Every 3 to 5 years your rate changes. This is common, but it’s not a “sub prime” mortgage. The initial amount of the mortgage is at a competitive rate. The rate doesn’t go sky high after the initial term in order to make the bank more money. The bank is happily making money right from the get go, while the homeowner has a really good idea of what they got themselves into. (Not always. A lot of people got hit with high interest rates in the late 70s. I remember my parents being happy about renewing their mortgage at 14% for a couple of years back when some people were hitting 18% and higher.)

The sub-prime mortgage wasn't the only type of creative (perhaps “shady” is more accurate) mortgage. There were some where your payment wasn't even enough to cover the interest, or banks wouldn’t look too closely at someone’s credit history. The point was to sign more mortgages to fuel the demand for CDOs. It didn't hurt that both the Democrats and the Republicans saw it as a good thing for more people to buy homes.

The wheels didn’t fall off the cart with CDOs and shady mortgages, but they certainly became very wobbly with the introduction of Credit Default Swap, or CDS. 60 Minutes concentrated on CDSs last night.

A Credit Default Swap is a derivative in the form of insurance. You have an investment and you think it might not completely pay out. You’re going to lose money. Another company comes along and says, “Yep, you’re right, I think it’s going to fail. Tell you what, if it doesn’t pay out I’ll pay you the difference. In the meantime, you give me monthly payments.” The first company buys a CDS. They make payments to the other company, the seller. If the security falls through, the buyer either hands over the collateral to the seller for the value of the security, or the seller pays the buyer the difference. In the meantime, the buyer makes payments to the seller.

(Simplified example:) Let’s say you have a mortgage security for $1 million. You think you’re only going to get $900,000 out of it. You pay the seller, oh, $20,000 a year for five years in monthly payments. If the security falls through within 5 years, the seller of the CDS takes the foreclosed property off your hands and pays you the $1 million. Or, you keep the property and the seller pays you the difference between the property and the value you can get for it. If the mortgage security doesn't fall through, the seller of the CDS makes money in the form of monthly payments.

The big banks and investment houses had their own CDSs, so sometimes they would just trade one CDS for another, betting that the investment they were giving the CDS against wouldn’t collapse. CDSs were sold as investment opportunities. Banks and corporations sold them to manage risk. If the risk was lower than anticipated, the seller of the CDS made money on the “premiums”. If the risk was higher than anticipated, the seller had to cover the loss, but presumably the banks and investment houses did some math to estimate how much money they were really risking. This is the big risk with these items: the seller of the CDS is now on the hook for bad debts. They’re going to owe money if the CDS falls through.

Now that the banks had a way of mitigating against loss, they started making securities based on even riskier mortgages. And they started playing around with how they created CDOs. This is where the wheels start to fall off.

Lets look at those CDOs. The A tranches sold well, because the risk was pretty low. The B tranches, with the riskier mortgages, not so much. Investment analysts needed a way to sell more of the B tranches. They decided that not all of those B tranches were really going to fail. They figured, oh, 20% of the B tranches would be bad, but the rest were good.

So, they bundled a bunch of B tranches together and created a new security out of them, called a second stage derivative. They took 80 percent of this bundle and called it an A tranche. The credit rating agencies nodded their heads and declared they were nice and safe as A tranches. Now investment companies were buying a whole lot of B tranches thinking that they were as secure as A tranches.

Wouldn’t you know it, the banking houses built CDSs out of these second stage derivatives, pretty much like they did with the first stage. Now, you and I can see that these second stage derivatives are riskier than first stage. And, we can see that there are already CDSs out there for the first stage derivatives, and now they’ve created them on the second stage, too.

But it gets better (or worse, if you will). Remember that with a CDS, the seller gets a premium each month. Well, that’s income, so the banks turned around and created a CDO out of that, too, which in turn was used to anchor a CDS. Then the investors got really inventive and came up with even weirder — and riskier — derivatives.

Now you had more and more securities built around existing securities. If a security did well, as it would while housing prices increased, you had a magnified effect of greater profits.

The housing boom and easy-to-get mortgages brought a lot of people into the market who shouldn’t have been there. It also brought about things like “flipping” (where someone bought a house cheap, spent money to fix it up, and then sold it at a profit; it seems like the TV channel TLC is based around this whole flipping thing). This fueled an increase in housing prices, making the bubble bigger. People took out loans on the equity on their house and used it for consumer spending. Other people bought property out of panic. More and more mortgage were produced, with more and more securities based on them, and with the securities themselves leveraged so the banks could invest even more heavily.

This worked well while housing prices increased.

Then the bubble burst.

A glut of new homes hit the market, slowing the rate of increase in home prices as homes took longer to sell. Subprime mortgages came due, and suddenly people were shocked at the increased interest rate. Homes weren’t worth quite as much as the owners thought. Refinancing became an issue. Some people got into a negative equity situation (the mortgage was for more than the house was worth), and had to make up the difference when it was time to renew the mortgage. Instead, people walked away from the home.

Banks foreclosed, but they couldn’t easily get rid of the properties they had acquired; the bubble was busily bursting.

All those CDSs were supposed to ease this sort of risk. Except the securities were too highly leveraged. There were too many securities based on the same crappy mortgages. The investment banks couldn’t afford to pay out the A tranches, let alone the B and C. They didn’t have enough money, and couldn’t liquidate enough securities to get it, because those securities had dropped so much in value.

That’s when the banks and investment houses started to collapse. I over simplified a lot of this, but that's essentially what happened. I'm not sure anyone really understands everything that happened in great detail. If they did, they were a mental oddity: intelligent enough to figure out these derivatives but not intelligent enough to figure out this house of cards would crash, and crash hard.

Peculiar political ad

There's a peculiar political ad floating around on Louisiana TV. I just noticed it this weekend, partly because of Alana's surgery, and partly because I mostly avoid the local channels.

The ad is an attack ad by Republican Louisiana Treasurer John Kennedy against incumbent Democratic U.S. senator Mary Landrieu (Kennedy is running against Landrieu). The ad accuses Landrieu of voting 81% of the time the same way as Barack Obama.

What's odd about this ad is that, somehow, the Republicans think this revelation is going to come as a surprise. Really? Two Democrats voted the same way? Say it ain't so, Joe... I mean, John!

Well, actually, yeah, it was a surprise. I mean, she only voted the same as Obama 81% of the time? What about the other almost 20%? Which one of them is less liberal, Obama or Landrieu. I'm actually semi serious about this; I'm really curious about the bills where they didn't vote the same.

Anyway, I really can't imagine why the Republicans are wasting money on this ad. Surely they could have come up with a better ad than that, one that doesn't verify what most voters already knew, that Landrieu was in the same party as *gasp* Obama.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Funny Simpsons line

There was a very funny line on The Simpsons tonight:

You hang onto resentment like a Confederate widow.

The man who prevented a nuclear war

I remembered reading about this a few years ago.

While conservatives have formed a posthumous lovefest around Ronald Reagan, forgotten are the dangerous first couple of years in his presidency when his "evil empire" rhetoric played well at home but did little to ease international tensions. Then the Soviets shot down Korean Airlines flight 007 on September 1, 1983, which was flying from JFK airport to Seoul, South Korea. At first the Soviets said the plane was spying, but later admitted to a "mistake" that cost the lives of 269 civilians. (No one is sure why the aircraft wandered into Soviet airspace, or why it didn't respond to Soviet radio calls, if they ever received those calls.)

On September 26, 1983, the world came this close to a nuclear war. Soviet early warning systems detected a missile heading for Moscow from the United States. Soviet protocol was to launch a massive nuclear counterstrike, but Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich Petrov wasn't convinced. He thought a single missile made no sense. He delayed the counterattack, even after another, and another, and another missile were recorded in bound.

You can read the full story here, but the upshot is that Petrov's assumption of a computer error was correct. He saved the world from nuclear war, at the cost of his pension and a nervous breakdown.

I wish I had posted this on the 25th anniversary of the incident, but better late than never. Petrov is little known, but he's someone everyone should know, and thank.

Another Tina Fey as Sarah Palin skit

A week or two ago Tina Fey played Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. It was quite funny;

Here's Tina Fey as Palin on last night's show. It's funnier than the first one.

Stewart and Colbert in Entertainment Weekly

I am so going to have to buy the next issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Here's a picture of the cover (with Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart). It's obviously a parody of the controversial New Yorker cover from earlier this year:

The interview with Stewart and Colbert is available online.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

First picture of a planet around a sun-like star?

A team of University of Toronto astronomers took what might be the first picture of an extra-solar planet — a planet around a sun other than our own — orbiting a star very similar to our own.

Astronomers have photographed other extra-solar planets, but they were all orbiting brown dwarfs, which are very small, very cold stars. Because they don't radiate much light, it's easier to spot (with optical telescopes) the planets that might orbit them.

In this case, the object was photographed orbiting the star with the catchy name 1RSX J160929.1-210524. This is a very young star. So young, in fact, that the planet has not yet cooled. This means it is radiating its own energy, making it possible to see. The star is a little smaller than our sun, and the planet is about the size of Jupiter, but much hotter (about 1500ºC, compared to Jupiter's temperature of -110ºC).

The star is 500 light years away. Scientists believe it will be another two years before we know for certain that it's moving along with the star, hence the reason why it's still open to conjecture as to whether or not the smaller object is a planet and whether or not it belongs to that star.

An additional interesting point is that the planet is 330 AU out from the star. An AU is an astronomical unit, equal to the distance from the Earth to the sun. Neptune is about 30 AU from our sun, so this planet is 10 times the distance from its star as Neptune is from the sun, which isn't a situation that fits the current solar system models.

This is going to be an interesting object to pay attention to. Meanwhile, the picture is available at the Gemini Observatory web site. Just follow this link:

Friday, September 12, 2008

Large Hadron Collider webcam

You might have heard about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the new, huge subatomic particle collider at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) near Geneva, Switzerland. The collider is being used to find, if possible, dark matter, the unseen particles that — theory predicts — make up the bulk of the mass in the universe.

There have been all sorts of (uninformed) reports that the collider could create a black hole big enough to destroy the world. That's foolish, it can't happen.

However, here's a live webcam site for the collider. Chances are you'll see an experiment in progress. Enjoy!

After that, here's a science rap about the collider, performed by a CERN employee. It topped over 2.8 million YouTube hits as of today.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

This Favored Land coming closer to reality!

Last week I got to see a very small sneak peak of my roleplaying supplement, This Favored Land: A Wild Talents Sourcebook for the War Between the States.

Shane at Arc Dream sent me a link to a preview of the layout files. I got to see all the finished art work, and the templates used for the layout. It looks very, very good! It's done in a 19th century style. The sidebars look like scrap paper, and the art looks like they were photos held into an album with those little sticky corner holders you used to be able to buy.

Arc Dream is working hard to finish the layout so that the book will be ready to go to print this month. Once it's been laid out, I'm sure I'll be asked to help proof it. I can't wait!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Call of Cthulhu: Dig To Victory!

I mentioned a few days ago that I played a game of Call of Cthulhu while I attended GenCon last month (gosh, it seems so long ago by saying "last month"...).

Role Playing Public Radio now has the entire session — all 320+ minutes of it — available as a podcast.

If you don't want to listen to it all online, you can also download it, though it does take several minutes.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Was Jindal a missed opportunity?

The wind has whipped up around here — gusting to 28 mph — and the rain is falling as the outer bands of Gustav slide over West Monroe, Louisiana. Fortunately, it looks like Gustav hasn't been anywhere near as devastating as Katrina, and maybe not as bad as Rita either.

Regardless of the power of Gustav, the evacuation of New Orleans and the southern part of the state went very smoothly. This is due to the lessons learned in Katrina. Apparently FEMA spent a year in New Orleans drawing up an evacuation plan.

One politician in particular is getting a "boost" due to Gustav: Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. His competence during Gustav — albeit with far better federal support and 50:50 hindsight — is striking in comparison to then governor Kathleen Blanco three years ago. With the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate, some people are starting to speculate on a particular what if: what if McCain had chosen Jindal to be his running mate? With the media focus on Louisiana, Jindal's leadership would be a powerful tool against the Democrats. Instead, McCain chose the inexperienced Palin for vice presidential nominee. Some media, and no doubt some Republicans, are wondering if McCain would have been better off choosing Jindal.

What the media seems to be forgetting — if they even remembered it in the first place — is the reason Jindal fell off the short list for VP in the first place.

Bobby Jindal fell off the list due to the embarrassment he suffered earlier this summer. The state congress in Louisiana voted itself a 125% pay increase, making Louisiana’s politicians some of the highest paid in the nation. Worse than that, their pay was to be tied to the consumer price index, a luxury not afforded to the vast majority of the state’s residents.

The people of Louisiana were livid, yet Bobby Jindal refused to veto the bill. Oh, he spoke out against the raise and urged the state congress not to pass it, but he refused to pit himself against Louisiana’s senators and representatives. Instead, he chose not to sign the bill into law, legal sleight-of-hand given that if the governor doesn’t sign a bill it goes into law within a month anyway. Only after a grassroots campaign to recall several Louisiana politicians — including Jindal — gathered momentum did Jindal realize he had misread the public, at which point he vetoed the bill.

Louisianians were openly speculating that Jindal would be a one-term governor, so angry were they over the raise debacle. Other skeletons in Jindal's closet, which came out during the last two gubernatorial elections, popped up once again (such as his participation in a fellow student's exorcism when he was in college). His chance of being picked as McCain’s running mate was essentially sunk by his actions back in June, and the negative publicity he received.

McCain didn't select Jindal for good reasons, reasons that have been largely forgotten as Jindal appears as a strong leader on television. It remains to be seen if his handling of Gustav will be enough to reform him in the eyes of Louisianians, though.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Watching Gustav

It was just a little over 3 years ago when I first started this blog. It was in the wake of Katrina, with Hurricane Rita heading to the coast. I thought it would be a good idea to start a blog with the hurricane on the way. I could point my family to the blog instead of getting the same, repeated questions of concern.

So, here I am on post number 383 talking about a hurricane about to hit the Louisiana coast. As of right now, Gustav is heading toward the coast just west of New Orleans. Normally winds are stronger on the northeast quadrant of a Gulf hurricane. According to the news, it's looking like Houma, LA is going to be in the northeast quadrant. In the case of Katrina — which hit east of New Orleans — the storm's wind drove the water in Lake Pontchartrain down to the city where they breached the levees. Gustav will be driving Gulf water up the Mississippi, but it might be safer for the city than what happened with Katrina. Gustav is faster, too, so the surge won't last for as long.

Katrina didn't hit us in Monroe. It looks like Gustav will hit us, though. The first rains from Gustav are sliding over Jackson, MS right now. We're, personally, in good shape. When we lived in Monroe, we were in a flood area. They have drainage channels, but we never really trusted them. Now we're in West Monroe. We're on a hill with a couple of valleys around us. I figure this area would need something like a 30 foot flood surge before water would come in our second floor apartment. The building is new, too, so I don't think we'll have a problem with the wind even if it's still hurricane force when it gets to us. There are trees behind us, none of which are tall enough to land on our apartment; the fear of being hit by a tree was very real in our old place.

I'll probably post when the hurricane winds get to us, assuming that we still have power. Losing power, in the fragile infrastructure that is Entergy's northeast Louisiana territory, is our greatest worry.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Threat to cotton

One of the first really cool things I saw down here in Louisiana was a cotton field. There's something special about a field covered in white fluff balls on short, dark brown stalks. I've seen people pull off to the side of the road and grab a cotton boll right from a plant. In these days of synthetic fabrics, it's simply cool to see natural fibers growing in a field.

How long this will continue is open to conjecture, because there's a scourge afflicting the South's cotton plants. And the scourge is almost entirely man-made.

The scourge goes by the name Palmer amaranth, also known as pigweed. Pigweed grows fast (an inch a day, even in drought conditions), blocking sunlight and sucking up water intended for cotton plants. Pigweed is resistant to Roundup, the primary herbicide — created by agri-tech company Monsanto — used by cotton farmers.

Monsanto developed genetically modified cotton that was resistant to Roundup. This tied a single strain of cotton seeds to a single herbicide. Farmers could spray Roundup over their crops secure in the knowledge that it would kill everything except their cotton plants.

Some scientists warned against such a mono-culture: a single plant strain coupled to a single herbicide. Roundup killed every plant that rivaled pigweed. Pigweed evolved a strain that was resistant to Roundup. Farmers planted Roundup resistant cotton and sprayed Roundup. The result was that only two plants survived on the farms, Roundup resistant cotton and Roundup resistant pigweed. Pigweed is the stronger plant, so it started taking over. Now it threatens the South's entire cotton industry.

Here's an interesting article on Palmer amaranth.

Monday, August 25, 2008

One of the last Civil War widows dies

A couple of years ago I read a story about a woman who died claiming to be the last Civil War widow. It turns out that she was not the last.

On August 17, one of the last Civil War widows died at the age of 93. Maddie White Hopkins (her name at the time of her death) married William M. Cantrell, a Confederate veteran, in Baxter County, Arkansas in 1934. She was 19, he was 86.

Her story is actually quite touching, describing the desperate situation in that part of the country during the Depression. She cleaned and did laundry for the elderly Civil War veteran. He offered to leave her his house and land if she married him and took care of him in his final years, which she agreed to do. He died 3 years later, in 1937.

Hopkins was reluctant to come forth, afraid of what people would say about her marriage. According to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, there are other Civil War widows who are still alive, and who shun publicity for similar reasons.

When you realize that there are still people around today who were married to a man who fought in the Civil War, you realize that 150 years isn't that long ago.

You can read the full story at the Charlottesville, VA Daily Progress web site.

Presidential timing

This post isn't intended to get into the debate about who would make a better president, Barack Obama or John McCain. Instead, I wanted to point out something that most reporters haven't mentioned. (In fact, I haven't seen it mentioned anywhere yet.)

If Barack Obama becomes U.S. president he will be the first African-American president, which everyone knows. He would be the first African-American president on the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the start of the American Civil War. The anniversary takes place April, 2011. (Most historians set the beginning of the war as April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on Union-held Fort Sumter. The U.S. Supreme Court fixed the legal start of the Civil War as April 19, 1861, the day Lincoln ordered the blockade of all Southern ports.)

Obama would also be president on the 150th anniversary of the enacting of the Emancipation Proclamation, which would occur at the end of his first term on January 1, 2013.

If he loses the election, then then 150 years would have passed since these events occurred with an unending string of middle-aged (or older) white men holding the nation's top office.

If an African-American were to win the 2012 election, they would be in office on the 150th anniversary of the passing of the 13th (outlawing slavery) and 14th (granting suffrage to black males) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

By contrast, the 19th Amendment granting women suffrage was passed in 1919, 89 years ago. If Obama wins, hopefully it won't be another 60-odd years before a woman becomes president.

Friday, August 22, 2008

GenCon Report

Life's been mucho busy, which is why I haven't posted anything to my blog. I was considering even just taking it down, but Alana suggested I post my GenCon report to it.

I was at GenCon last week, from August 14 through 17. This was the first GenCon I'd attended since 2000, back when I was in Toronto and it was in Milwaukee. The purpose of the trip was to run events of This Favored Land, my Civil War roleplaying game supplement to Arc Dream's Wild Talents. My book is due out sometime next month.

I intended to have all my scenario stuff printed out on Monday, the 11th so that I'd have the 12th to pack and relax in order to get up early the next day. That didn't happen, and I was printing maps up until 10:15 pm. As such, I didn't leave West Monroe until 7:30 a.m. I made pretty good time, though, getting to Indy in just over 12 hours, including a lunch and a dinner stop. The irony of GenCon travel is that when it was in Milwaukee it took 12 hours to drive there from Toronto. It moved to Indy after I moved to Louisiana. Milwaukee is a two day trip from here, but while Indy is now down to 9 hours from Toronto it is 12 hours from West Monroe. I'm destined to always travel 12 hours to GenCon.

(For the record, the drive seemed to go by faster here. I think it's because the number of Interstate changes is a little more spread out, making for better breaks in the drive.)

This is the fastest GenCon I've ever attended. I think it has to do with running RPGs during the middle of the day (1 pm to 5 pm). When I ran miniatures events I spread them out so that I ran some of the events at night. I only had to handhold the players for about an hour, after which they were running things on their own. In an RPG I'm busy the full 4 hours. I enjoyed it, but it also makes the day seem to go by very fast.

I got to meet the folks at Arc Dream for the first time in person. Three of them (Shane Ivey the president, John Marron an editor, and Kevin Pezzano a writer) live in Birmingham, AL. We're planning to get together at some point, as it's only about a 5 or 6 hour shot across I-20 to get there from West Monroe. Shane even suggested bi-monthly game sessions. Not sure I could afford the gas for that.

Thursday night I visited with some friends (Mike Miserendino and Dean Gundberg) from my days running Ground Zero Games miniatures events. None of us could believe it was 8 years since I last saw them. I tried to catch them again Saturday night, but their games were done by then. This surprised me a little, mainly because a decade ago we had games running until about midnight a couple of times, or at least up until 10. As it was, I didn't get to play any miniatures games.

I did get to play a Call of Cthulhu game with Scott Glancy, one of the co-creators of Delta Green, along with Greg Stolze (inventor of the ORE system and fairly well known in RPG circles). We played members of the British 179th Tunelling Company during World War I. Much fun was had, and my character managed to avoid being eaten and remained sane! The scenario ("Dig for Victory!") is going to appear in a Pagan game book at some point. The game session is going to show up on Ross Payton's podcast web site.

My scenarios played very well. I didn't have anyone show up for my Thursday game, but when Ross couldn't make it to run a Monsters and Other Childish Things game (also by Arc Dream) I folded most of his players into my own scenario. On Friday, I ran the scenario for a father and son group that so enjoyed the game they pre-ordered my book. Saturday I had to make space for extra people in my adventure (Woohoo!). On Sunday I only had one player, but Shane Ivey jumped in and I ran it for the two of them. This was the first time I had run games for complete strangers, and it was a blast.

Shane and I discussed my next project, which is going to be a Godlike book about the First Special Service Force. Most of the Godlike campaigns are short, 34 to 60 pages, but Shane wants a full 128 page game book, which means about 80,000 to 100,000 words. Oh, and he still wants the two extra chapters for This Favored Land that I've been working on and he wants the two GenCon scenarios as expanded PDFs. I'm going to be a busy boy...

That was my GenCon in a nutshell. A couple of observations:

  • There were more kids (10 year olds and younger) there than I remember. They seemed generally well behaved.

  • The miniatures events were spread all over the place, which is too bad given that they are very much a visual hobby. The historicals were about a block and a half away, from what I heard, and I only saw two historical games the whole time I was there.

  • Not a lot of night time games. I've heard a number of people complaining that after 6 pm it was hard to find a game to get into, except for the occasional pickup game. Looks like a good opportunity if you want people to play in your game: run it from 6 to 10 or, better yet, 7 to 11.

  • There were a lot of good looking science fiction and science fantasy miniatures games. There were four or five contenders to Games Workshop type games, though the game mechanics looked looked better. The old Mutant Chronicles game is back, this time by Fantasy Flight.

  • Whoever came up with the leather and heavy cotton men's utility kilts -- complete with pockets! -- should be shot out of hand.

  • The Forge had a good selection of truly interesting RPGs. I picked up _Dread_ which uses a Jenga tower to simulate the dread felt in horror games. 3:16, a tongue-in-cheek "beat up the alients" RPG sold very well, but I thought it was a bit pricey at $25 considering what you got. A game based on the Warsaw ghetto won a big indie award (I was at the ceremony in a bar on Wednesday night).

  • There was no Elder Party rally this year for the presidential elections, partly to do with some controversy from 2000 or 2004, but I never got the full scoop about it. So, I guess Cthulhu is running for president by acclimation.

  • Finally, you can have a great time at GenCon without spending much on events. There are a lot of free games you can try, particularly if your friends bring some of their own games along.

I bought some neat stuff (of course). Here's a list:

  • Wild Talents Essential Edition (didn't actuall buy this; it was my comp playtest copy). The full rules for Wild Talents 2nd Edition, but with the background universe and a couple of (very good) essays removed. The full $40 hardback will be available this fall, but this edition, with just the rules, is a steal at $10 and if you played any of our games at GenCon you received a $5 off coupon for any purchase. Best deal of the convention!

  • A Dirty World, Greg Stolze's film noir roleplaying game using Arc Dream's One Roll Engine system.

  • Dread, a horror roleplaying game that uses a Jenga tower to add, uh, dread and tension to the game.

  • Memoir '44: "Operation Overlord" and the "Hedgrow Hell Battle Map". I'm a big fan of Memoir '44, which is rules light but still offers some nice tactical decisions. The "overlord" games are extra big games that require two sets of the rules, and sometimes two sets of the expansion packs! The "Operation Overlord" set provides cardstock counters instead of plastic figures, but for all the armies covered by the game. It also includes special "Overlord" cards. The battle map is double sided with all the terrain pre-printed, and comes with new rules and new truck models.

  • Monsterpocalypse. I sort of blundered into this. I was looking at some models in the Privateer Press booth before the dealer's room opened, only to discover that a line had formed ahead of me and eventually encompassed me. I asked what the line was for, and someone mentioned it was to buy Privateer Press stuff, particularly Monsterpocalypse. This is a collectible miniatures game about giant monsters destroying cities. Logan loves a similar game we have for the Playstation, and after hearing about the game from fans in the line, I ended up buying a set. Unfortunately the starter packs were sold out and we could really use another one to play, but we'll be able to manage with what we have so far. After buying the sets I picked up the rare GenCon exclusive figure for $2, and then I played a demo that netted me the GenCon demo exclusive figure.

  • Mr. Jack is a two player family game of hunting Jack the Ripper. It gets very good reviews and I've wanted this for a while.

  • Wings of War is a card game about World War I aerial combat. I'd heard mixed things about it, but the Arc Dream guys all played and enjoyed it, and talking to a woman at the Fantasy Flight booth sold me on it. It looks very easy and a lot of fun to play. I'm going to try and rope Logan into playing this weekend.

  • Black Goat of the Woods: an expansion for the Arkham Horror board game. I might have to haul this out later this weekend. Takes a while to set up and it isn't a short game, but it can be played solitaire.

  • Ten Creepy Freaks booster packs for Logan. This is a game he got into a couple of years ago that was soon discontinued. They were selling the boosters for $1 each.

  • Starship Troopers Miniatures Game and Starship Troopers Floorplans. I've had precious little time to paint miniatures this year, and so buying more miniatures for a setting I didn't already have was right out. I do have some trooper miniatures I can use with this game, I just need to buy some bugs. I may or may not do that, but the game was on clearance for $2, as were the floorplans (which I can use for roleplaying games).

  • More dice than you can shake a stick at.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I found this fun little site with those dumb little polls that everyone seems to enjoy filling out. Okay, I enjoy them, at least.

I have almost a 50:50 chance of surviving a zombie attack:


Given the above, it's probably not helpful that I'd make a good human shield:


Or that that it's a 50:50 chance I'd eat my friends once the food ran out:


However, I have a pretty good chance of beating up a kindergarten class (presumably if they aren't zombies):


I now have proof that I'm worth more to Alana dead than alive:

$4575.00The Cadaver Calculator - Find out how much your body is worth.

The degree to which I'm a geek shouldn't surprise anyone (except to say, "What, that low?"):

80% Geek

My spelling's not bad, either:

You can find the whole selection of quizzes and widgets here:

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Hello! Is there anybody in there?

Thud. Thud. Thud. Is this thing on?

As you can tell, I haven't died or been abducted by aliens or anything.

So, why haven't I blogged? Mostly from being extremely busy with writing and other stuff.

Right after I posted my last message (more than three months ago; yikes!), I received feedback on This Favored Land, the Wild Talents roleplaying supplement for the War Between the States. The good news was that they really, really liked the manuscript! A recent comment was "it will rock your face off", so I'm really psyched! It's been compared, rather positively, to Arc Dream's Godlike roleplaying game.

The bad news/good news was the feedback from the playtesters. It was all pretty positive, but it was in almost all cases a request for more information, both from Shane Ivey at Arc Dream and the playtesters. As a result, the manuscript exploded in size. From June through September I wrote 83,000 words. In the month of January I added almost 40,000 words to the manuscript! This is actually quite deceptive, because there was a major problem with the scenario in the original manuscript, so I had to almost completely rewrite it. Call it 45,000 words in a month and a bit. (The "bit" came when a playtest document showed up the day before I was going to send in the finished draft, resulting in another week or so of edits.)

So that was what I did every night in January, or so it seems. At about the same time, Logan started playing soccer and I was drafted as a coach. Well, alternate coach actually. I didn't have the time to do all the coaching activities. Their season ended last month. They didn't win a game, but they tied in three games. The age group ran from 7 to 9, and most of our players were only 7 years old. We also had a fair number of kids that only showed up for the games, not the practices. With a tiny bit of luck, we could have won two of the games we tied. It was fun, though, and I think the kids learned some stuff for the next season. I don't know if I'll be coaching again. Part of me wants to, though Logan probably won't play in the fall as it will run at the same time as football.

The biggest issue for us this year has been Alana's health. She's not been feeling well since December, or earlier, but since the start of the year she's just been feeling really bad. It has to do with her diabetes, and various drug interactions. We now at least know what is causing the problems. Unfortunately, she's now on a cocktail of prescriptions; she's up over 18 prescription meds a day now.

The weather has turned nice (we're in that one month zone in Louisiana when it's gorgeous), so we're getting out and walking more, which helps all of us. We just walked up to a nearby park, prowled around and walked back, something we need to do a lot more of. Logan and I have been playing more games of late. He's really taken by an old, simple Avalon Hill game called Naval War that, in spite of its name, is a slightly abstract card game. One of the reasons he likes it is because he can beat me at it rather handily (it's mostly just luck, though there is a slight strategic element). We played Memoir '44 this week, and he beat me! This is a "light" wargame in a system I really enjoy. It's a very easy system to learn, but it's not a simplistic game. I first played it with him a couple of years ago, when he needed help from Alana in choosing cards. This is the first time that we played with him making all the decisions. He still beat me! (Yes, I went a little easy on him. If I hadn't, I think he would have still won! I blame my dice rolls...)

Gaming wise, we're still playing roleplaying games once a month, though I think we've only played twice this year, and three times since September. Jimmy hasn't been able to make it down with Jason, so our roleplaying group is down to three. I'm running Walker In The Wastes for them. When that's over, in a year or so, I'll look at resurrecting Delta Green or playing a similar game, like Conspiracy X. I'm thinking of taking the Conspiracy X game (using Eden's Unisystem) and converting it to One Roll Engine (ORE, which is used in This Favored Land). Eden has been incredibly slow at releasing stuff for 2nd Edition Conspiracy X. First edition used a completely different rule set, so you have to do some converting of their sourcebooks into the Conspiracy X 2.0 rules. If I'm going to do that, I might as well convert to ORE. If I run Delta Green again, it will be with the NEMESIS rules, which are ORE based.

I've also been playing a weekly Skype game of Call of Cthulhu. I'm running the players through Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. This past week we used the freeware RPGTools MapTool program for the first time. It allows you to share maps with players online. It worked very well. One of the players, Tom, has purchased a similar game. I think we're going to give that a try to see if the extra features are worth changing from the free MapTool program.

This all brings me full circle to This Favored Land. I haven't heard anything yet, but I've volunteered to run a couple of games at GenCon. As a result, I've been working on a couple of scenarios. I also need to work on two extra chapters for the book which will be released as PDFs simultaneously with the book's release, which is tentatively scheduled for June. This week I received a request from Shane at Arc Dream to help with the new super power rules for Wild Talents. Originally the 2nd edition of the game was going to just be a reprint with some additional information. Instead, they've decided to fix some aspects of the rules based on feedback they've received since the game's initial release at the end of 2006.

At the same time, I have a couple of additional game ideas in mind. I could extend This Favored Land into the Wild West. Or, I could write an ORE version for feudal Japan. Percolating away is the idea for a fantasy/alternate history game I mentioned three months ago. The only problem with this game is I'll need to do a fair bit of research, and I'm not sure we have the space for any more books!

Yes, I'm going to be busy in the next few months, but I'm going to try and blog more. Or, if I can't because of all the other writing I'm doing, I have to seriously consider whether or not it's worth keeping the blog going. I'm not sure anyone is even reading it any more.

Thud. Thud. Thud. Is this thing on?

Friday, January 04, 2008

Louisiana state government supports LSU

Alana mentioned today that she can go to work in jeans and a Louisiana State University t-shirt on Monday. Alana works for the State of Louisiana. LSU plays Ohio State in the NCAA national championship football game on Monday.

I guess they figured they might just as well let people wear LSU t-shirts because they're going to do it anyway! (The main campus of LSU is in the state capitol of Baton Rouge.)

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Mike Huckabee and the National Igloo

Mike Huckabee won the Republican presidential nomination in Iowa this evening. It is, therefore, only fitting that I present to the people of the United States a younger, chubbier Mike Huckabee at his intellectual best.

The following is a clip from a one hour special — based on a semi-regular segment called "Talking To Americans" — from the Canadian fake news show This Hour Has 22 Minutes. (The show was sort of a Canadian version of The Daily Show, though it predated the American show). This is from 2000, when the then governor of Arkansas congratulated Canada on preserving its National Igloo:

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Roleplaying game idea: Reaver

While I haven't been posting to my blog, I haven't been just lying around like a slug. I've been working on a New Orleans scenario for This Favored Land. I've also been working on an entirely different roleplaying game, using the same ORE (One Roll Engine) game system.

This game, so far named Reaver, is set in an alternative 13th century with fantasy elements. I have a good handle on the setting, but I'm stalling on how to tie the setting to character motivation.

The departure point is the 3rd century CE. Christianity and Mithraism compete in Rome, with Mithraism eventually attaining the edge. Mithraism was a religion popular among Roman soldiers, brought to Rome from the Middle East. Through the first three centuries of the Common Era, Mithraism and Christianity co-existed. There's some debate as to whether the two religions actually competed head-to-head, or if they just basically competed for real estate within Rome. There are several elements common to both religions. In this game, it's Mithraism rather than Christianity that comes out as the state religion of Rome by the end of the 4th century, though Christianity still exists.

Fast forward to the 13th Century. England's king (King John in our timeline; someone else in my modified time line, which I'm still working on) is having problems with France. In our time line John came up with the idea of converting to Islam. At the time, he wasn't taken seriously and England remained Christian. In my timeline the king does turn to Islam, which has spread pretty much as it did in our universe. He sees the Moors in Spain as a valuable ally against Mithraic France.

Not everyone in England is happy about the conversion to Islam, of course. The nobles in Northumbria, in particular, have taken a dislike to this forced conversion, and are considering rebellion.

And this brings us to the actual focus of the game. Scots — who are still pagan Celts in the absence of Christian conversion — and Englishmen have both raided across the border for decades, but there is change in the air. Mithraic Northumbria and Celtic Scotland are now drawn tenuously together as they clash against Muslim England. At the same time, the old grievances between Scotland and England are not easily cast aside.

The fantasy elements are more subtle. The creatures of Celtic myth exist, but have been driven to near extinction as mankind advances into the wilderness. Only in the wilderness will you find mythic creatures. Belief is an important aspect. Muslim prayers (and Christian prayers, too) are answered, if the correct conditions are met. For an example of the feel I'm looking for I have in mind the old Land of the Ninja supplement for RuneQuest. Basically, the world works as people perceived it to work in the 13th century.

The characters are Celtic Scots living along the Borders.

This brings me to my problem. I haven't figured out, yet, how to closely connect the characters to the setting. For that matter, I'm not entirely sure I should closely connect the characters to the setting.

So, that's what I've been doing lately instead of blogging. I'll do some more research and then see how this game works out.